Who wins the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(21 May 2021) – No one wins, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will claim victory. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a means by which Netanyahu consolidates power in Israel. But it will be a Pyrrhic Victory. His continued pursuit of oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people in and of their homeland is perpetuating a decades old crime against the Palestinian people – a crime against humanity. There will be repercussions. Hamas also loses, but most of all the Palestinian people are losers yet again. Furthermore, at this early point in President Biden’s administration, the president’s credibility was tested, and his efforts to return the US to leadership of the international community were on the line.
The Palestinian issue is back on the US agenda
The often-forgotten Palestinian issue is back on the global agenda. The dynamics this time around may be different. Netanyahu, by exposing the eroding Israeli support in the US, particularly among Democrats in the US Congress, may have over-played his hand and given President Biden an opportunity for advancing a favorable Palestinian option. Traditionally, the strength of Israeli supporters in the US, particularly in the Congress, constrains US presidents from pursuing a balanced policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Now, as the US body politic shifts the balance towards a more favorable response to the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians, the Biden administration should seize the opportunity to act boldly and pursue an even-handed policy to end these cyclical wars that kill Israelis and Palestinians disproportionately.
The reality is a viable solution remains elusive. However, the Biden administration has an opportunity to act in tandem with the rest of the international community, through the United Nations, to reverse Netanyahu’s and Trump’s policy on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory. There must be US-backed consequences for defiance by the Israeli government. Congressional democrats have already signaled withholding of US assistance to Israel, over three billion dollars annually, to coerce Israeli compliance. The Israeli army needs US arms sales to remain dominant in the region, especially in the face of Iranian threat.
While publicly appearing tolerant of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, President Biden privately expressed grave concerns for the Palestinian causalities and demanded a ceasefire from Netanyahu. His approach worked. As the US strongest and most trusted ally in the region, Israeli leaders do not envision any circumstance under which Israel will lose US military support. However, had this conflict dragged on and a ceasefire not declared when it was, the Biden administration would have been in an untenable position and forced to publicly condemn Israeli actions to maintain international credibility. Biden also faced increased pressure from his party and many of his strongest supporters. There were concerns within the administration that the longer this conflict dragged on the more likelihood of this being adjudged a major foreign policy failure of his new administration, overshadowing his leadership on future global foreign policy issues.
Historical imbalance against the Palestinians
Millions of Palestinians have been suffering under inhumane conditions since they were forced to flee their ancestral homes in Palestine following the founding of Israel in 1948. Millions only know life in refugee camps without a scintilla of hope of the right to return to their homes in accord with international law and international humanitarian standards. Millions have been living under Israeli occupation on the West Bank since 1967, and in Gaza under Hamas control and subjugation. The humanitarian condition and statelessness of the Palestinian people have been on the international agenda for decades without an enforceable viable solution.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel war the international community embraced a two-state solution with a secure Israel and an independent Palestinian state side-by-side. UNSC resolution 242 (1967) which called for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestinian Territory, is the bedrock of international Israeli-Palestinian policy, but has never been accepted by most Israeli political and military leaders. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territory is illegal under UNSC resolutions and international law. Most American presidents since 1967 have endorsed the provisions of resolution 242, and resolution 338 (1973) which also makes Israel’s occupation illegal under international law. Former US president Donald Trump was an exception. The illegality of the Israeli settlements not withstanding Israeli leaders have rejected out rightly the provisions of these resolutions and acted to entrench Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory. Netanyahu has flouted international law and taken Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory further than any other.
Netanyahu’s political objectives
Netanyahu hold on power is dependent on elevating the real or perceived threat against Israel from the Palestinian people. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah with their automatic military responses to any Israeli provocation or aggression, and Hamas’ illusion about destroying Israel, often dominate the conversation. Hamas, a designated terrorist group is viewed as an international pariah in most capitals. West Bank Palestinian leaders, often perceived as corrupt, have little influence, if any, over the future of the Palestinian people and are powerless to change the Israeli-Palestinian dynamics.
The Israeli body politic in the face of any perceived or real threat from the Palestinians invariably support their current government which is often responsible for instigating the conflict in the first place. Netanyahu is thus strengthened in the short term by this conflict, using it to consolidate his support among conservative politicians and military leaders. It may sound cynical, but every move made by Netanyahu and his rightwing cronies is calculated to shore up his political support to remain in power. The humanitarian impact on the Palestinian people is never a factor. Lives lost in the conflict, including the lives of children, are seen as collateral damage. Staying in office shields Netanyahu from his legal problems. If it sounds analogous to the actions of the former US president, it is.
Netanyahu disdains the idea of a Palestinian state and makes expansion of settlements central to his policy. It is of interest to note how often critics of Palestinian leadership refer to them as “corrupt.” Many are. However, it is hypocritical to speak of Palestinian leaders’ corruption as an impediment to engaging with them when Israeli leader Netanyahu has been indicted by Israeli prosecutors on corruption charges.
Former President Barack Obama and then Vice President Joe Biden opposed Israel’s settlement policy. Under President Obama’s leadership the US abstained on a vote thus allowing passage of UNSC resolution 2334 (2016) on December 23, 2016, by a vote of 14-0 which unequivocally affirmed that the Israeli settlements in Palestinian Territory have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law. US position is support of the two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, and Israeli settlements made that outcome more difficult, if not impossible to achieve. This policy was reversed by Trump including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I expect Netanyahu to disrespect President Biden as he did President Obama with the support of Congressional Republicans. Netanyahu may be testing President Biden’s resolve. I believe he will lose.
UN Security Council’s past inability to act responsibly
Given the humanitarian impact of the current conflict, the US blocking of the latest UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in the conflict was disappointing but not surprising.
Given the decades-old inability of the UNSC to restore and maintain peace and security between the Israelis and Palestinians, there was a glimmer of hope in 2000 when the UNSC adopted resolution 1322 (2000) during the second intifada by a vote of 14-0. After countless hours of agonizing debate in which I had a principal, and principled role, the US abstained.
The debate, sometimes frustrating, with the late Ambassador Richard Holbrook then US Permanent Representative to the United Nations representing the Clinton Administration, resulted in a rare positive outcome for the UNSC on the Palestinian issue. Achieving a US abstention instead of a veto on a balanced resolution which blamed both sides for the conflict, at any time in UNSC history, was a rarity. Most importantly, the resolution condemned “acts of violence, especially the excessive use of force against Palestinians, resulting in loss of human life.”
It was unprecedented for the US to be balanced in its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and to allow the UNSC to ascribe blame to Israel for use of excessive force was more than a rarity. It just does not happen. Furthermore, resolution 1322 deplored the behavior of then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon for leading a Likud Party delegation accompanied by hundreds of riot police to the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest site. Sharon’s action provoked the ensuing violence leading to the second intifada.
Ambassador Holbrook by abstaining allowed passage of the resolution, but, later, on the Charlie Rose Show said his decision not to exercise the US veto was his biggest regret during his tenure at the UN. I am proud of the lead role I had in achieving that end. In an interview with the BBC, I said the UNSC cannot act responsibly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, because the US wields the veto. I used the interview to call for reform of the UNSC and particularly to discard the anachronistic veto power held by the US, China. France, Russia, and the UK. They use the veto to further their narrow political interests, rather than for the collective good of the international community.
My position has not changed in 20 year regarding the use or threat of the veto. The US by blocking UNSC action on the current conflict by exercise of the veto on May 17, 2021 again proved me right – the UNSC cannot act responsibly on the Israel-Palestinian issue. Will Biden change that?
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post